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Baidu President Ya-Qin Zhang in the corner window of the company’s new Seattle-area office, overlooking downtown Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

China’s Baidu is opening an engineering office in the Seattle region, giving the Beijing-based Internet powerhouse an additional U.S. outpost to expand its reach in artificial intelligence and the cloud.

The new Baidu office in downtown Bellevue, Wash., is starting with a small team that includes the leaders of Kitt.ai, the Seattle-based artificial intelligence startup acquired by Baidu this year. Baidu’s current space has room for as many as 40 people in the first year, depending on how quickly it’s able to recruit top engineers.

Baidu, long known as the leading Chinese-language Internet search engine, has expanded in recent years in areas ranging from financial services to artificial intelligence — seeking breakthroughs in computer vision, speech recognition, deep learning and natural language understanding. Baidu is also making a big move into the public cloud, which will be another major focus for the new office.

“Obviously our core business will continue to be search for many years to come — which is a great business,” said Baidu president Ya-Qin Zhang, who established and led Microsoft’s China R&D initiatives before joining Baidu. “But we are getting into new fields … the cloud, autonomous driving and all the verticals that are driven by AI.”

Inside Baidu’s new office in Bellevue, Wash. (Baidu Photo)

Eventually, Baidu could grow to as many as “a couple hundred” people in the region, said Zhang, who oversees the company’s U.S. operations, in an interview with GeekWire at the company’s new building in Bellevue. That would rival the current size of Baidu’s Silicon Valley operations.

Why expand to the Seattle region?

“Talent, talent, talent,” said Zhang, citing the region’s growing status as a magnet and home for leading computer scientists and engineers, particularly in cloud technologies.

Traded on the Nasdaq at a market value of more than $85 billion, Baidu is one in a triumvirate of Chinese tech giants that have been growing their clout globally, the group known as “BAT,” along with Alibaba and Tencent.

Baidu has serious credentials in artificial intelligence, with more than 2,000 people in its artificial intelligence group. The company has gone through a leadership transition in artificial intelligence this year with the departure in March of its Silicon Valley-based chief scientist, Andrew Ng.

Qi Lu, Baidu group president and chief operating officer.

Qi Lu, the respected former Microsoft divisional president with years of artificial intelligence experience, was named Baidu group president and chief operating officer in January, in part to lead a new AI push for the company. In a speech this year, Lu called the promise of artificial intelligence a “historic opportunity.”

The experience and reputations of Zhang and Lu promise give Baidu additional connections and clout as the company seeks to recruit top engineers to the new office. Both executives still maintain homes in the Seattle region, and spend time here in addition to working in Beijing at the Baidu headquarters.

Unique aspects of Baidu’s culture include the use of a technical committee to evaluate and promote engineers, rather than leaving the decision up to the employee’s direct manager. Decisions give weight to technical merit and engineering accomplishments, which Zhang described as an example of the company’s engineering culture.

Of course, competition for engineers is fierce among tech companies. With the new office, Baidu becomes the latest in a long string of out-of-town companies to establish engineering centers in the Seattle region, seeking to tap the pool of engineering talent from the University of Washington and top companies headquartered here, including Microsoft and Amazon and many leading startups.

In fact, with the new Baidu office, there are now more than 100 engineering centers established in the Seattle region by out-of-town companies, as tracked by GeekWire on our Engineering Centers list. That database has nearly doubled in size since we launched it on the site less than three years ago.

Several other prominent Chinese tech companies — including Tencent, Huawei and Alibaba — have engineering offices in the region, as well.

Having Baidu join those companies in the Seattle area “makes a ton of sense for them, and it’s great for us” as a region, said University of Washington professor Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair at the UW’s Paul Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.

“Seattle’s calling card is serious engineering, not quickie apps,” Lazowska said, calling the region “the world center of the cloud,” with Amazon, Microsoft and a major Google operation in addition to homegrown startups and cloud engineering centers, plus the UW’s focus on software system engineering.

He also pointed to the region’s status as a major center of AI, with Microsoft, the UW, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and others pushing the boundaries of technology in areas such as machine learning, speech, vision, natural language processing, and robotics.

In addition, Seattle’s position on the Pacific Rim gives it a natural connection to Asia. For example, Baidu recently signed on as an industry consortium partner of the Global Innovation Exchange, the U.S.-China technology institute in Bellevue, a first-of-its-kind initiative launched by the UW and China’s Tsinghua University.

Baidu is also sponsoring this week’s GeekWire Summit in Seattle to mark the opening of its new office.

Even with the opening of the new Seattle office, the company is continuing to expand in Silicon Valley, where Baidu just announced a second office focused on AI and autonomous driving. Last month, the company announced a $1.5 billion “Apollo Fund” to invest in autonomous driving projects over the next three years.

Baidu’s new office also puts the company in closer proximity to Microsoft, which is partnering with Baidu on autonomous driving and intelligent cloud technologies.

As it doubles down on artificial intelligence, Baidu has been narrowing its focus in other areas, selling its food takeout delivery business to Eli.me, a startup backed by Alibaba, for example.

The new Bellevue office is key to Baidu’s long term strategy. Announcing second-quarter results in July, which surpassed analysts’ expectations, Baidu CEO Robin Li said the company will focus on two strategic pillars: mobile technologies and artificial intelligence.

“We will use AI as a fundamental driver to elevate our current core business, specifically our core products of Mobile Baidu, search and feed,” Li said. “In parallel, we will continue to build out our newer AI-enabled initiatives through an open platform and ecosystem approach to capture long term economic opportunity.”

Baidu’s share price has risen more than 50 percent this year amid the new focus on AI. Analysts say it’s critical for the company to find new areas for growth beyond its core search and online marketing businesses. Other initiatives from Baidu include its iQiyi video service, the largest in China, which also continues to grow.

In the recent interview with GeekWire, Zhang said some of the company’s new initiatives such as the Apollo Fund for autonomous driving won’t be revenue sources unto themselves in the short run, but they do set the stage for the company to boost revenue from related services, such as mapping technologies.

Meanwhile, other areas are already seeing significant growth. Baidu Cloud said last month that its customer base increased 10 times in its first year, and revenue increased four times. “We’ll probably continue that trend for the next few years,” said Zhang. “So you will see significant revenue outside of search.”

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